Household food insecurity in the UK

It is only since 2016 that household food insecurity measurement tools have started to be used in large representative surveys in the UK. In 2016, the Food Standards Agency included the USDA’s Adult Food Security Module in their Food and You Survey and again in 2018. In 2020, the survey was redesigned as Food and You 2, leading to a break in the time series, but continued to include the Adult Food Security module, as well as questions on food bank use. This survey covers adults living in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The latest findings reported in 2022 showed that 15% of adults lived in households classified as food insecure, and 6% reported living in household with very low food insecurity. Figure 1 shows prevalence levels across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, though levels are not significantly different between countries.



Figure 1: Proportion of adults age 16+ experiencing food insecurity in the past 12 months (Food and You, 2022). Source: Food and You 2 Wave 3 Key Findings Report

The annual Scottish Health Survey started collecting data on food insecurity in Scotland in 2017. This survey includes three questions generally based on the FAO’s Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES), though the first question queries worry about food running out rather than worry about not having enough food to eat, as is asked in the FIES. Based on responses to these three item questions, it was found that 8% of adults experienced food insecurity in the last 12 months in terms of worrying that they would run out of food due to a lack of money or other resources. However, it is worth noting that the survey may slightly underestimate these experiences of moderate to severe food insecurity as the latter two questions were only asked of those that were worried about running out of food. This year, a review of the topics and questions included in the Scottish Health Survey will be undertaken.

In a significant development for food insecurity research and policy in the UK, food insecurity questions were added to the Department for Work and Pensions’ Family Resources Survey in 2019. The survey, which covers all four UK nations, aimed to sample 20,000 households and included the 10-item Adult Food Security Survey module, which is answered by the adult in the household primarily responsible for food acquisition. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, interviews were paused in early 2020 but 19,000 households were still able to be sampled in 2019-20. Their findings, which measured before the impact of COVID-19, found that 6% of households had marginal household food security, 4% had low household food security and a further 4% had very low household food security.

However, it is important to note that the measurement tool selected for the FRS is the 30-day USDA Food Security Measurement Module, rather than a module that uses a 12-month reference period. As highlighted in a recent blog, the proportion of people who experience food insecurity in the last 30-days is much lower than the proportion who experience food insecurity in a 12-month period. 

In addition to survey data based on UK household surveys, since 2014, the Food and Agriculture organisation has funded the inclusion of their Food Insecurity Experience Scale in the Gallup World Poll (GWP). The GWP is administered in over 140 countries, with about 1,000 adults in each country participating in each. In the UK and most high-income countries, the survey is conducted by phone. Because the annual sample is too small to provide a robust annual measure of food insecurity at the country level, the FAO releases data on food insecurity that has been pooled over three years of the GWP. These data are available in the FAO’s The State of Food Insecurity and Nutrition in the World report, which is released annually. Over 2019 to 2021, 3.5% of the UK population were estimated to have experienced food insecurity based on the FAO’s globally set threshold for food insecurity. This threshold is higher than the USDA’s threshold, hence, the prevalence is lower than results from the FSA’s Food and You survey. Differences in survey methodology (i.e. a telephone survey versus door-to-door survey) and the module used (i.e. FIES versus USDA Food Security Survey Module) may also explain the observed differences in prevalence of food insecurity. The FAO does not report marginal food insecurity.